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Cholesterol Drugs Could Help Reduce Spread of Tumor in Tasmanian Devils

Researchers discover drugs used to lower cholesterol could help reduce the spread of the devil facial tumor disease. 

BRISBANE, Australia — Scientists have discovered that drugs used to lower cholesterol in humans could stop the spread of the deadly facial tumor disease (DFTD) in Tasmanian devils and help protect the endangered Australian marsupials from extinction.

Devil facial tumor disease is an aggressive form of cancer that can spread when the carnivorous marsupials bite each other.

Australian and Spanish scientists studied the molecular and metabolic mechanisms of the disease. They found that if cholesterol synthesis is drastically reduced, the tumors don’t grow as the cells need a minimum amount of cholesterol to multiply.

The research, undertaken mainly at QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, Brisbane, has been published in the scientific journal Cell Reports on March 16, 2021.

“Our laboratory experiments showed devil facial tumor disease cells grew and spread more, using glucose as a source of energy,” said Manuel A. Fernandez-Rojo, lead researcher and doctor.

“We used this understanding of the biology that drives the disease to examine if statins, which are drugs that inhibit cholesterol synthesis, would stop the tumor cells multiplying.”

“We found statins reduced the growth of the devil facial tumors in the laboratory.”

Rojo claims the metabolic drivers underlying devil facial tumor disease had not been thoroughly studied until now.

“More research was needed to see if cholesterol-lowering drugs could be used to inhibit, or at least slow, the growth of the disease,” he said.

Zoos Victoria estimates fewer than 15,000 Tasmanian devils remain in the wild, an 80 percent drop in population since cancer emerged in the mid-1990s.

“The findings could also have implications for the treatment of malignant and highly aggressive cancers in people,” said Maria Ikonomopoulou, the study’s other lead researcher.

“We know statins work on tumor cells in lab experiments, so we now want to expand our study of the drugs in stopping the spread of cancer tumors,” she said.

Human cancer cells undergo similar metabolic adaptation to growing as those exhibited by (devil facial tumor) cells in the devils as per the research.

“This raises the question whether statins, which are currently prescribed for the treatment of cardiovascular disease and diabetes in humans, could also be used to help treat very aggressive human cancers such as melanoma, pancreatic or colon cancer.”

The research further highlights the benefits of researching a wide range of different diseases across species to know the potential benefits of human health.

As per the report, the Tasmanian devil tumor cells were provided by the Tasmanian government through the “Save the Tasmanian Devil Program.”

(Edited by Vaibhav Vishwanath Pawar and Pallavi Mehra.)